amber d. tran
I close my car door and roll down the window. My best friend turns up the radio and slides a pair of oversized sunglasses over her eyes. She snaps her fingers, smacks her lips together, and chimes, “Let’s go!”
It is 2006, and we still think holographic lip gloss is cool.
As I wheel my tiny car out of the high school parking lot, I make sure to use the correct turn signal before peeling onto US 250. I wave to the cop car idling near one of the side student areas. He waves back, a joyous gentleman with a Santa Claus beard and a sunburned nose that twinkles like the North Star.
Our small town barely has a traffic light (when it works, it just blinks yellow), let alone more than one member of law enforcement to oversee us. There are barely 150 students enrolled at the high school, and over half of them are involved with the FFA program. The biggest news to come out of Hundred in over a decade was opening the new Dollar General on the northeastern part of town. My grandmother is probably there right now.
The high school parking lot comes alive as students file to buses or their own vehicles. The car behind me honks four times, a common practice of my classmate, the so-called troublemaker my mother refuses to let me see. He was a self-proclaimed “bad boy” who wore ICP-styled braids on top of his head. I see his snakebite piercings wink in my rearview mirror.
My best friend turns in her seat and waves at him, yells into the back window, “We’re going, we’re going!” She is beautiful, a wild creature with crooked teeth and model-slender legs.
I ask her to sit back down and fasten her seatbelt. An ounce of reluctance leaves her, but she obeys. Reaching down to turn down the radio, I turn to her for a moment. “Are you okay?”
She exemplifies serenity with a blush. From the corner of my eye, I see her struggle wrapping her ear-length dark hair in a bun. It was just last week she got her hair cut for the first time in over a year. She gives up on the bun. Her small, pale hands fiddle with the fringe of her new bangs before she settles to leave them to one side. Her voice is fierce as she exclaims, “Of course!”
A part of me feels like reminding her we are approaching the second anniversary of her boyfriend’s suicide.
She never wants to talk about it.
She had purposely made herself unavailable for the first one, a decision that none of her friends, including me, wanted to make, but we did not know what else to do. While I tackled the summer that year with a neighbor friend and fell in love with an older boy from Texas with Tourette’s Syndrome, she spent hers watching the grass freeze from her bedroom window.
Everything about her was cold anymore.
Instead, I tell her, “All right, if you say so,” and I turn up the stereo system.
We listen to one of my burned CDs, a mixture of Japanese songs from some of my favorite animes: Digimon, Cyborg 009, Cowboy Bebop, and FLCL.
She asks me to play her favorite song, the techno one with the guy-girl duets. I oblige because I want to hear her sing. Her powerful, encompassing voice does not fit to her petite frame, which always shocks audiences when she performs in new competitions and venues. Everyone in town knew she was a rare breed—somewhat of a musical prodigy in regards to her adaptive vocals—so it is never a surprise when the auditorium has no empty seats during one of our biannual choir programs.
Both of us were accepted into the choir program in the 4th grade, but I have been harmonizing with her in a slightly smaller shadow ever since.
She clears her throat before the song bleeds from her mouth, “Mata nozoita itsu mo no kagi ana, yami ni ussura jibun no kage dake—”
“Do you want to talk about anything?” I have to scream my words through clenched teeth to splice the notes that leave her.
She stops, narrows her glance with a sign of frustration cupping her pale eyes. “No, I don’t.” Her personality shifts, a chameleon changing colors, and she reaches out and warns me that my part is coming up next. Of course her fingertip is ice-cold when she taps my arm. Her hands have practically been frozen since birth.
I sigh before clearing my throat to join her. “I can’t get you out of my mind, I can’t get you out of my mind.”
“You’re too low. Sing higher.”
I try, but I must not meet her standards, for she turns down the radio and faces me. The song is now barely audible from the low-grade speakers of my 1996 Chevy Cavalier (textbook first car for any teenager growing up in West Virginia). Her cheeks are dry and peeling. Spots of red and white dollop the curves of her face. “Never mind. Today just isn’t your day is all.”
Finally, the words spill from me, and I admit, “I’m worried about you.”
We pass the local ice cream parlor. Its official name is The Dairy Dream, but everyone under the age of 20 calls it The Dairy Dump. This unfavorable nickname means absolutely nothing, because as I drive past the small building perched on a hill near Fish Creek, I do not see a single empty parking space.
I reach over and tap the dusty dashboard in front of her. “Hey, hey. Did you hear me?”
She does not move. I watch the bones of her shoulders freeze, tiny points underneath a thin American Eagle t-shirt. My best friend barely blinks. Her long eyelashes remain the skirts to her blue eyes. Somehow, she shakes the frost and gives me a smile. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine, honestly.”
A few moments later, we pass one of Hundred’s local bars, The Spot. My grip on the steering wheel has turned white-knuckled and warm. I listen to her chew on her fingernails, brittle shreds at the tips of her fingers, blood and scabs following. She speaks, her voice soft, “I know you want to talk about him, but I really don’t.”
My heart flinches. She has no idea what I want.
I bite the tip of my tongue, run it along the front of my lips. I must be careful with my selection of words. She is not looking at me when I whisper, “It’s been—”
She snaps back at me, “As if I didn’t already know that, Amber.” She likes using my name. I like hearing her say it.
A part of her went with him when he passed, the part of her that bled iridescence, the intoxicating glow to her face when she stepped into a room. Now, as I glance over at her with holes burning in my lungs, her tiny legs folded underneath her, a patch of skin showing from the bottom of her shirt, the smell of her discounted perfume, I admit to myself that I miss that part of my best friend: the part that went with him, the part of her I lost when he pulled the trigger.
I miss her.
Tears swell my eyes. I pretend that something has afflicted my glance, combing my fingers underneath my glasses, and rubbing at the chunky mascara there. Her hand grasps the steering wheel without me even asking. She behaves as if she can read my mind. As she keeps my car on the right side of the road, I use both hands to wipe away the salt in my eyes and thank her by returning my palms to the steering wheel.
She cradles herself in a cloud of silence. I swallow the twinge in my throat.
We arrive at her house in Littleton, the one on the corner of Long Drain Road before it ends at a questionable, haphazard rusted bridge. She waits for me to ease the car into park before she unfastens her seatbelt. I get out with her so I can unlock the trunk and open it for her. She reaches in and slides her backpack over her shoulders. We have not said anything to one another in four miles.
The quiet shatters as she says to me, her words dripping, “Please, Amber. Do not talk about him anymore.” She must have noticed my cheeks wince at her comment, for she groans through her nose and says the same thing, only slightly differently, “I know you’re trying to help me, but I don’t want to talk about it. I’m sick of talking about him.”
I am spineless and reply, “Okay, sorry.”
“Just think about it for a second.” My best friend faces me now. She and I are each other’s mirror reflections, we look so similar: dark brown hair, petite frame with pale skin, narrow face and rosy cheeks, semi-full lips, and paralyzing eyes filled with pure, blue ice. “You hate talking about your dad, right?”
I roll my eyes. “Right.”
“Well, take that pain, multiply it by a number that is so large it doesn’t even exist, and then tattoo it on like, the back of your eyelids—because that’s what I feel every time someone wants to talk about him, and every time—” She applies a suffocating amount of staccato to her voice now. “—every freaking time I think I am fine, I close my eyes, and there he is, Amber. He’s right there.”
She tries her best to close the trunk of my car without a loud thunk, but her frustration consumes her, and my car bounces up and down with the vigorous slam. She steps back, but she doesn’t say anything. Her upper body grows and deflates with each of her breaths.
Then I see something. On the edges of her eyes, I see thin lines of water.
The ice in her is melting.
My mouth hangs open at the sight. I am unsure of the source of the fire, the kind of heat strong enough to melt solid-glass, frost-laced ice, but I make an assumption that could cost me my friendship with her and act upon it. Nausea wraps its slimy fingers around my throat me as I timidly say to her, “It’s been two years since he committed suicide. You still haven’t—”
“—I still haven’t what, Amber?” She is a dragon now. Her skin is scaly, and her nostrils flare. “What are you trying to say? I still haven’t what?” The more words that escape her burning esophagus, the faster I see glaciers and slush fall from her shoulders.
My guess is right.
Only she can breathe fire hot enough to melt the ice that has imprisoned her since May 2004, but she cannot breathe this fire alone.
The only way to trigger the heatwave at her core is to attack her at her most vulnerable state. Digging the heels of my combat boots in the gravel beneath me, rooting myself to the earth and wearing its grainy soil and slab of stone for armor, I swallow hard—so hard, I almost choke—and I mimic the words she used to say to herself every time she looked in a mirror.
“You could have saved him!”
My best friend opens her mouth, and I prepare myself for a bath of liquid fire.
The razor-prick stings of her words on my skin leave behind dots like that look like small cigarette burns. She spews lava at my feet, but I stand firm. With every phrase that leaks out of her magma cavity, the tundra in her veins collapses. Her shoulders are completely free of cold now, and she throws her arms into the air. Everything is coming out of her at once. My heart trembles behind a curtain as it listens to her voice take on the element of fire.
Her emotions flee from her in shreds of paper, like ripped pages from her journal, only to transform into glowing feathers of ash before sweeping to the ground.
She is cruel—stammering on about how I am the worst person she knew, how I have copied her since we became best friends in 6th grade, how I wish I was as smart as her and could sing as well as her, how I dreamed I could be as pretty as her so I could have a boyfriend—but I let her continue, because she is right.
It takes almost four minutes of her fury to completely chisel away the winter of her boyfriend’s suicide. Blocks of ice skirt her feet, and a trail of powdered snow exposes the path she paced behind my car. Only two pieces of ice remained: her eyes.
For only a moment I am afraid that nothing, not even her own voice, can produce an emotion hot enough to thaw the cold she has seen, but then she stares up into the sky and whispers something. The appearance of fog in her eyes is slow at first, unfamiliar with the beginning of change. She says it once more, and the blue pearls on her face crack like the surface of a frozen lake. More and more she says it, and finally, I see it:
My best friend cries in front of me for the first time since her boyfriend’s viewing over two years ago.
I let her say it as many times as it takes until the ice—all of it—is finally gone.
Then she lowers her chin, face blotched red and wet with salt, and she says the same thing to me.
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
And then the grass woke all around her.
“I know,” I tell her.
She wipes snot from her upper lip. “I didn’t mean to—”
“No, you did,” I correct her. “You meant to. I mean, you needed to.”
“I can’t believe that just happened. I haven’t—I’m just—” She kneels down and picks up her backpack. I have no idea when she took it off. “—I’m gonna go inside. I need to read.”
“Okay. If you need anything—”
“I know,” is the last thing she says to me before she walks to the front door of her house. I watch her the entire way. She makes the leap from the roadside to the small nub of a rusted pipe jutting from the stone wall framing the hill of her house. After climbing the cement steps, she stops and sends me a fragile smile over her shoulder. That smile erases the weight of the last two years from my shoulders.
The screen door wriggles closed in the doorframe, and then I slip into my car.
A part of me pretends to see fresh blossoms, in yellows and pinks and purples, sprouting from the invisible footprints she left behind on her walk from my car to her house, but I laugh off the fictional idea and start my drive home.
“My best friend, the garden,” I say aloud, and I turn up the volume.
20 March, 2021